At home, my husband and I fall into routines. Every day, we get up at the same time, drink our coffee, make breakfast, clean our home. We run errands, meet friends for coffee, go to church. Since we are both retired, we mostly stay at home, working on projects, or playing with our dogs. I spend time at my laptop, creating and refining stories.
But something magical happens when we go camping.
Our normal routines are placed on pause. We trade inside for outside. The air is fresher, the view is camera worthy. Errands are replaced by walking the dogs and reading in a lounge chair. Meals become simpler. There are few interruptions.
Getting out into nature refreshes my imagination. Many of my writing ideas percolated while sitting by a campfire, gazing up at a million stars or perched on a sandstone cliff, squinting at a sparkling blue ocean.
People are different when they’re camping. At home, we wave at our neighbors when we drive down the street, but we don’t often speak to them. When we’re camping, we spend most of our time outside. Strangers passing on their way to the beach often stop and talk. The neighbor at the next campsite might wander over to our campfire. They share their stories with us, giving me more writing ideas. Sometimes they need to borrow things they forgot at home. Sometimes we’re the ones whose lighter runs out.
Camping requires us to make sacrifices. The RV bed is not as comfortable as our king size bed at home. Going up and down the stairs, in and out of our RV, gets old after a while. Our tiny kitchen has no counter space. We can’t fit many groceries in our fridge. If the weather turns bad, we are crammed inside our RV with our dogs.
Although my husband and I both love camping, we are not ready to sell our home and live on the road. Our church, family, and friends keep us grounded in our regular home.
But camping is a pause. Watching the churning ocean or trees rustle in the wind resets our souls. Camping allows us to distance ourselves from our normal life to think and plan. When we stand with other campers watching the sun melt into the horizon, we have time to ponder our place in the majesty of creation. The problems and concerns we will return to in a few days become smaller, too.
Why not go camping, when its magic recharges our lives?
“Don’t doubt your value. Don’t run from who you are.”
Another boring day in front of my screen. I seriously think my history teacher runs searches for “most boring details from early American history” before making her lessons. Wow! Crazy boys rode horses at breakneck speed to deliver mail to California. Who cares what happened five hundred years ago before there were aircars or globalnet?
I sighed and started drawing on my notekeeper. Ever since I took that virtual tour of the LA Arboretum, my doodles took the form of various flowers I had seen. Not seen in person of course since there were no flowers outside of state-run sanctuaries. I loved drawing all their varied shapes and colors. My favorite was the calla lily with its graceful sweeping hood and bold yellow stamen.
“Ms. Stamly.” I heard my voice and jerked my attention back to the class display on the screen wall. Oh no, she was calling on me.
“Yes, Ms. Hill,” I said as I frantically paged back on my notes trying to discover what we were talking about in class.
“I thought maybe your audio went out,” she droned. “My question was whether you thought the railroads were unfair in their domination of early California transportation?”
So that’s what happened after the Pony Express. All I had were sketches of flowers.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Hill, I think I missed that part. Globalnet problem,” I offered.
My teacher’s face scrunched up like she’d just tasted something sour. She straightened and wrote something on her notekeeper. “Well, you’d better get the newest update.” Then she called on someone else, and my mind drifted away.
I hoped she wouldn’t message my parents. They had big plans for me after secondary school, and getting a bad grade in American History was not part of them. If I did badly in school, they’d take away my screen time, my only escape from our apartment’s sterile white walls. I would go crazy in less than a week, and then they’d put me on those pills that most of my friends took.
It’s not my fault my mom and dad were doctors at the university hospital and my destiny would be to join them one day. The thought of sealing up a bloody wound with a Sealit wand made me want to swoon like a lady wearing a corset in those ancient texts.
Locked up in our sanitized apartment tower, I longed to feel dirt on my hands. Hear the drone of bees and cheerful gurgle of a rushing stream. Like the rest of the ill-fated children of my time, we were quarantined to our homes until our secondary graduations. Viruses and bad influences they said. When she was home, Mom would tell me stories about how teens used to drive cars and meet for bonfires at the beach. Going anywhere seemed a fairy tale. Fires? I couldn’t imagine the government allowing anyone to set one for personal use.
I needed to get out of here. Maybe I could get Amy to go with me. I texted her on my watch.
“Log out of school, and meet me in the rec room.”
She wrote back right away, “Are you crazy?”
“Just the right kind.”
A few minutes later, a tall girl with spiky yellow hair met me by our apartment’s pool. Without a word, I waved her over to the changing room, the only place without cameras. I unpacked the duffel I had brought, dumping out adult clothes, wigs, and makeup.
“What is that for?” she asked, her voice wavering.
“We’re going to smell flowers,” I said.
A short time later, we were riding in an Uber aircar on our way to the LA Arboretum. Mom and Dad would probably blame Amy and never let me speak to her again if they found out what we were doing. They refused to believe I would resist any of their plans for me. My heart was racing, but it would all be worth it.
The car dropped us off without a word. I was so glad self-driving aircars were the norm, as the AI wouldn’t see that we were teens under our disguises. However, we would still have to get past the front gate.
I exhaled in relief when I discovered the entry kiosk was only a machine. I waved Mom’s spare cash card that she left for emergencies and the gate opened with a click.
“Come on,” I said as I pulled Amy with me into the Arboretum.
Wild pungent aromas overwhelmed us. Competing layers of sweet smells combined with a musty undertone, scents that I had never experienced. Some reminded me of candy or cakes, while others were dark and mysterious. The plants were so green they hurt my eyes. Not only green, but so many shades of green I lost count.
And flowers! In every shape and size, shades of red, purple, yellow, orange, and a white so brilliant it must have been copied from a cloud.
“Penny, are you alright?” Amy shook me by the shoulders.
“I’m more than alright. I’m perfect.” I had stopped in front of a long stemmed white flower, its curving bell shape holding me in awe.
“I’m not going to medical school,” I said almost like a prayer.
“Penny, these flowers are making you dizzy. Every child has to take their parent’s place. What if all doctors’ kids decided to choose a different career? We wouldn’t have medical care.”
“But that’s not who I am,” I insisted. I waved my arms toward the paradise surrounding us. “I belong here. Caring for plants and flowers. Adults can make laws and control what kids do, but we’re born with our own talents.”
“We’d better get back,” Amy said, looking around to see if anyone was close enough to hear us.
I nodded, and called up the ride service on my watch. “I’ll be back,” I whispered on the breeze.
An icy blast steals my breath as I zip up my hoodie. Tight jeans, unbearable in summer, hug warmth into my legs. Lollie, my Pomeranian, trots at the end of his leash, ears pricked and tail curled over his back. Rain threatens, and I need to take him for a walk before it’s too late.
Bare black branches reach out to the grey skies above us. Lollie and I tread silently on sodden leaves scattered on the street. I walk as fast as I can in my boots, hoping my pace will keep me from shivering. The day is bleak. Where are my California blue skies? Even though 45-degree temperatures would be mild this time of year in Iowa, my wardrobe is not prepared for this unusual weather.
What will I do the rest of the day? On a typical Sunday, my husband, Frank, and I would be out exploring the back roads on our Harley or camping at the beach. My quick trip around the block today will be the only outside time I can steal. Other tasks await. I could work on revisions to my book or do laundry. But I feel the weight of the black clouds pressing down, draining my energy.
I pull off a glove with my teeth to tap the weather app on my phone. The week’s forecast features a raining cloud next to each day. Great. Not only am I stuck inside this weekend, but the students I teach will be stuck inside my tiny portable classroom all week, too. Children who need playtime to be productive. Quickly I slip my phone back into my pocket and put on my glove. Lollie yanks me to a stop as he sniffs a worm floating in a puddle. A cold raindrop spatters on my cheek.
“Come on, Lolls, let’s go home.” I pull him along with me, almost running the last block back. Wet polka dots appear on the street, as I dash up our driveway and into our warm home.
As my tea steeps, I stare out the slider at circular ripples forming on my swimming pool. I’m held captive inside my own house by a relentless curtain of rain. I take a sip of Earl Grey and close my laptop. Time to read a book.
Am I whining about much-needed rain? Not at all! Californians have restless souls that can only be soothed by excursions into its endless variety of dramatic scenery. The mountains restore our sense of awe. Watching the surf calms our anxieties. The desert expanse reminds us that we are part of a larger design. Our California dreams can’t be contained in houses, condos, or apartments. We need to feel the road under our wheels and soar to the top of the highest peak. Our sense of journey propels us through the chaos of modern life.
And rain, although essential, slows us down, tethers us to man-made things until the sun comes out, and we are free to wander again.
So I read a science fiction book, wrapped in a blanket next to Lollie, waiting for the pounding on my roof to cease. Waiting for release from my winter captivity.
I know that someone who lives in a state that continually suffers drought should not complain about rain. But there’s something you should know about the effect of precipitation on southern California.
First of all, our cities have not been planned for actual water to flow through our streets. Any drainage system that exists is mainly ornamental, and when the gutter rivers begin to rise, the sewers are quickly clogged. This results in instant lakes blocking the intersections of major roads.
Added to that, and perhaps because of that, drivers in southern California don’t know how to operate their vehicles in the rain. Possibly it hasn’t rained since they passed their drivers test. But I believe that these drivers are so accustomed to bright sunny days and clear nights that they tend to throw tantrums if the weather doesn’t cooperate. So they speed through flooded streets, creating tall rooster tails of water on both sides of their cars. Or they panic and stop in the middle of the street, unable to proceed due to the drops of water on their windshields. And their windshield wipers have rotted away in the sun long ago, and the screeching sound of the wiper arms adds to their menace.
Another effect of long-awaited rain is mudslides and falling trees. We never do anything half way in California, so when it rains, it rains solid for three days straight. Those ash-strewn hills trying to recover from wildfires become chocolate pudding that rushes to join the rest of the water blocking the drains at the bottom of the hills. Huge trees come tumbling down on houses and cars. Even houses groan and shift down the hill. The effects of rain can be more devastating than the drought.
Children stay home from school as parents don’t want to battle the rain to drive them, or don’t want their kids to stand soaked at the bus stop. One rural school district even called a “Rain Day” and closed their schools, as buses got stuck in the mud on back roads. Teachers wish they would have stayed home when they are stuck with kids in the classroom all day, California kids that are used to playing outside.
But I hope you understand. I’m not complaining. There’s snow on the ski slopes and water in our lakes. The hills surrounding me are bright green, bringing back memories of Ireland. But our gift of water always comes with a cost. So I guess we just have to be ready to pay it.
Because of pneumonia, I saw three deer in the forest.
Six long months ago, I booked our camping trip at the beach. Those of you who have made reservations at California state beaches know the degree of difficulty is at least an 8. But I did better than that– I booked one of the sites directly on the cliff at Carlsbad. These camping spots are wide, and trailers are allowed to park sideways so that your dining table window is facing the ocean. In order to secure those sites, you have to be on the ReserveAmerica website at exactly 7:55 am on the first– wait a minute! I’d better not reveal my secrets.
Six months later, time is approaching for our trip. The October weather forecast is promising days of 80 degrees and nights down to 60. Perfect. I’ve made my camping checklist, scheduled each day to do part of the prep work. School’s been tough, and I’m ready to check out of the desert for a weekend.
Three weeks before the trip, our six year old grandson goes into the hospital suffering pneumonia. His mother, my husband’s daughter, is a nurse practitioner, so we know she’s on top of everything. All of the family takes turns visiting him. After a week of treatment, the doctors send him home. Everyone takes a sigh of relief.
But one week later, our grandson goes back into the hospital again, sicker than he was at first. Raised voices from his parents produce a specialist who determines that our grandson’s lungs need a procedure. By now, his mother, who knows too much, and did I mention she’s in her first trimester of pregnancy, has become officially hysterical. (Who could blame her?) Her husband has now become the last sane person standing. Family members come and go to the hospital, like the changing of the guard.
A few nights before our camping trip, my husband and I look at each other. How do we dare leave the area while all this was going on?
I called and cancelled the reservation.
Meanwhile, our grandson started to recover, and that weekend, the weekend we had planned to go camping, he was allowed to leave and receive treatments at his home. Sunday the family was getting together to celebrate. But we had Saturday free.
A friend called and asked us to ride with him up to the mountains. After all the tension of the past weeks, we were ready to jump on our Harley and escape the heat. We rode up Highway 18 to Lake Arrowhead for lunch. We sat outside eating sandwiches, enjoying the sunshine and crisp cool air. After that we rode through Big Bear Lake. Our friend suggested we take Highway 38 through the mountains down to Yucaipa, a little used road that served as the access to a few campgrounds and fire roads.
Leaving the traffic of Big Bear behind, we cruised up the narrow winding road that would through the towering pines. Forest surrounded us on either side, and for most of the way there were no other cars. We swooshed back and forth in the curves like snow boarders. Lulled by the hum of the motorcycle engines and the rustling of the trees, we settled into the rhythm of the road.
Then three small heads with pointy ears turned our way from the forest’s edge. We had startled some young deer, which stared at us with suspicion, and then showed us their white tails as they bounded away. Although we had frequently visited our local mountains, this was the first time we had been far enough away from humans to catch sight of any wildlife.
If not for our grandson’s pneumonia, we never would have seen them.